Personal Journey: In Mexico, ruins of their very own

Frances Beckley at Dzibanche. She panicked on descent.
Frances Beckley at Dzibanche. She panicked on descent. (FRED BECKLEY)
Posted: June 15, 2014

I've probably done worse things to our kids than drag them through innumerable ruins - Greek, Roman, Mayan, etc. - but we have been to a lot of ruins. If it was built and fell down, we'll make a detour; if it was built, fell down, buried, and dug up again, we'll book a room.

Owing to their proximity to margaritas and warm beaches, we've been to a lot of big-ticket Mayan ruins in particular (Tikal, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Caracol). On a recent cruise, though, we stopped at Costa Maya, Mexico, and discovered, by circumstance and somewhat by accident, a new favorite.

Costa Maya is a manufactured stop in the middle of nowhere. Essentially, they built a pier sticking out into the water like a straw to suck in cruise ships. It's an if-they-come-we-will-build-it type of deal, only we came and they hadn't built it. Activities included staying on the boat, a "city" tour (city not included), and bus trips to also-ran Mayan ruins.

I targeted ruins online and found Dzibanche, which I had never heard of and still can't pronounce. It had two things going for it: Our ship didn't offer an excursion and, according to the company that did, it's the only site where you can still climb the pyramids. Good news, kids: We're going to Dzibanche!

As expected, our Dzibanche crew was small - 10 tourists, a driver, and a guide. After the traditional Mexican tourist-operation waiting-around phase, we boarded a white minivan and began. Our trek involved more driving than exploring: two hours in the van, an hour at the site, two more hours in the van. I withheld this information from certain parties in advance.

But it was more than worth the drive. Starting from nowhere, we bounced around (important travel note: water is provided, beer is not) until we arrived even more nowhere. We were alone at the site; it felt like we had discovered it.

Two thousand years ago Dzibanche was a large city; today the reclaimed part consists of a few structures separated by cleared plazas. Little is known, and our guide didn't spin the usual tales of human sacrifice and ancient astrology.

After a brief orientation, it was time to climb. We scrambled up walls, foundations, unexcavated mounds, and the steep, irregular stone "steps" of the pyramids.

At the top of the largest we marveled at the uninterrupted jungle canopy spread flat over the Yucatan, held on a little for dear life, and faced the troubling prospect of getting back down. It seemed even steeper, narrower, and more irregular than on the way up. There were no handrails, no prospect of medical care, not even a well-developed tort law.

Midway down, my wife experienced a mild panic attack, afraid to move in any direction, uncertain what to do, and nobody near to lend a hand. Fortunately, I had a camera with a decent zoom lens.

Someday there may be an actual reason to visit Costa Maya, but we would still likely leave it for Dzibanche.

Fred Beckley last wrote about his journey on the Auto Train.

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